Humble superstar: Lee Anderson is the Gazette’s Person of the Year

 Lee Anderson at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton where he runs the kitchen and outreach programs for those in need through Manna Community Kitchen in Northampton. Anderson was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s 2024 Person of the Year on Thursday.

Lee Anderson at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton where he runs the kitchen and outreach programs for those in need through Manna Community Kitchen in Northampton. Anderson was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s 2024 Person of the Year on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Lee Anderson at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, where he runs the kitchen and outreach programs for those in need through Manna Community Kitchen. Anderson was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s 2024 Person of the Year on Thursday.

Lee Anderson at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, where he runs the kitchen and outreach programs for those in need through Manna Community Kitchen. Anderson was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s 2024 Person of the Year on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Lee Anderson at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, where he runs the kitchen and outreach programs for those in need through Manna Community Kitchen. Anderson was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s 2024 Person of the Year on Thursday.

Lee Anderson at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, where he runs the kitchen and outreach programs for those in need through Manna Community Kitchen. Anderson was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s 2024 Person of the Year on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 06-13-2024 3:37 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Lee Anderson first had the opportunity to cook for and serve the guests at the Manna Community Kitchen, an idea took form in his mind.

“I realized we had something we weren’t optimizing,” he said.

It was 2016 and he had begun volunteering in the kitchen after moving to Northampton and, for reasons he says he still doesn’t fully understand, joining St. John’s Episcopal Church, which houses the Manna kitchen.

Anderson, who was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s 2024 Person of the Year Award on Thursday, took over management of the daily meals and started bringing some changes.

“I said, ‘Let’s do better food. Why should we be serving old, donated food? Let’s have a salad with every meal,’” he recalled.

There was some pushback from those who worried about the expense, but it turned out there was no need to worry about that.

“Our donations went up without us even asking,” he said.

Now, Manna buys all its food fresh every day, and accepts donated food from Smith College only — because they’re right there, and because they have good vegetarian options, which Anderson acknowledged are not his forte.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Elements Massage studio in Hadley abruptly closes after state order
Music in the sky: Summit House Sunset Concert Series returns to its 173-year-old home
Hadley Route 9 project finish expected in spring 2026
Oliveira, Carey demand state probe into conditions at South Hadley nursing home
Inspector promoted to lead Northampton Building Department
Two months into his golf career, Northampton’s Claudio Guerra cards hole-in-one

“We make the best possible meal we can make,” he said.

At the same time, he said, Manna stopped having problems finding volunteers. It now has a pool of some 300, many of whom are regulars, showing up on the same day every week.

The connection with Manna’s guests deepened, also, he said, as they became more willing to share personal stories. These can involve a problem that is easy to solve, such as the need for a bus pass.

Anderson, who grew up in West Springfield, had some familiarity with the restaurant trade, having worked in sales for his grandfather’s cash register company, and he wasn’t fazed by the volume of food being prepared at Manna.

He remembers a wise friend who said, you don’t know your limits until you test them. Always do more than you think you can. He said he has found that to be almost true at Manna.

“I’ve never hit a wall,” he said. “There’s a physical energy that comes back from the guests that recharges your batteries.”

Anderson is careful to avoid labeling anyone.

“We’re here for people,” he said. At any moment a retired executive could be enjoying a meal next to someone who slept under a bridge the night before.

What was Manna Soup Kitchen, which for Anderson conjured up images of “Oliver Twist,” is now Manna Community Kitchen. The kitchen produces 300 to 325 meals a day, 112 of which will be set aside for the next day’s home delivery, Anderson said.

That way, the food never runs out.

“We want to model abundance,” he said. “There’s no reason for anybody to be hungry in Northampton.”

Home delivery began during the pandemic, when Manna’s meal count instantly tripled, Anderson said. It has stayed at that high level ever since.

Gazette Publisher Shawn Palmer said this year wasn’t the first time he had noticed Anderson’s name.

“This is the fourth year that I have participated in the Gazette’s annual awards, and this is the fourth year that Lee has been nominated for Person of the Year,” he said. “I’m so glad that he is being recognized this year for the exceptional work he does to help our neighbors dealing with food insecurity.

“And I’m also glad, and thankful, for those who kept his name in front of us and nominated him year after year!”

Anderson is the 10th recipient of the Person of the Year, which is awarded in partnership with the United Way of the Franklin and Hampshire Region to a Hampshire County resident who has shown “a profound commitment to selflessly helping others.” The award comes with a $500 check, half of which will be donated to a charity of his choice. It was presented during an awards ceremony at the United Way’s annual meeting at the Look Park Garden House.

Other services have begun to make use of Manna’s function as a gathering place. The idea of seeing a doctor or visiting a clinic can be stressful for many, so Manna has arranged with Hilltown Community Health Center to have a doctor visit once a week.

“We’re blessed to have Dr. (Jessica) Bossie here,” Anderson said.

Tapestry comes once a week with its medical van, and the Survival Center does a pop-up pantry, he said.

Manna also runs the drop-in center in the church basement where people can shower, do laundry, charge their phones and even find shoes and clothes.

With its deep connections and array of services, Manna is certain to be a central player at the city’s planned Resilience Hub, a multipurpose shelter and resource center planned to open next year.

At Thursday’s award ceremony, Anderson expanded on his vision for the center, which is, in part, breaking down the silos that people often find themselves in.

“The easiest thing we do is food on a plate,” he said. “We can put the most beautiful food on a plate in front of somebody, and I hope what that does is deliver a calm for them to trust us to help with other things they really need. We have a saying at Manna and that’s ‘It’s OK to ask for what you need.’ We may not know, but we probably know somebody who does.”

Anderson gives credit to Manna’s small staff, especially Laura Manning, his fellow meal planner, and Nora Finnerty, who started volunteering as a UMass student and now works for the university’s School of Public Health.

“We’ve had some superstars come through here,” he said.

Still, he said, to him, Manna’s about the volunteers — residents of Northampton serving and talking to people different from them.

“It makes Northampton a better place,” he said.

James Pentland can be reached a jpentland@gazettenet.com.